In many ways the world is a far more complex, difficult place to live in now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Social media places children under increasing pressure – and at an ever decreasing age – to look perfect, have limitless “friends” and lead apparently perfect lives. Many parents work longer hours than in previous decades, leaving them with little time and energy to spend with their kids. And children are under immense pressure to perform academically and on the sports field.
In previous years, kids could generally be found playing outside with their friends or chatting to them on the phone, but modern society leaves children isolated from one another, spending more time with virtual “friends” than real-life ones. Many spend most of their time online, hardly ever venturing outside.
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In Denmark, prescriptions for children increased by 60 percent; prescription numbers soared more than 54 percent in the United Kingdom; in Germany, they rose by 49 percent; the United States saw a 26 percent increase; and there was a 17 percent increase in antidepressant prescriptions for children in the Netherlands during that period.
The study also found that the drug manufacturers are not only aware of this fact but that they actively try to hide the risks by labeling suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts as “worsening of depression” or “emotional liability” rather than admitting that they are side effects of the medication.
“Despite what you’ve been led to believe, antidepressants have repeatedly been shown in long-term scientific studies to worsen the course of mental illness — to say nothing of the risks of liver damage, bleeding, weight gain, sexual dysfunction, and reduced cognitive function they entail,” warned holistic women’s health psychiatrist, Dr. Kelly Brogan, writing for Green Med Info. “The dirtiest little secret of all is the fact that antidepressants are among the most difficult drugs to taper from, more so than alcohol and opiates.
“While you might call it ‘going through withdrawal,’ we medical professionals have been instructed to call it ‘discontinuation syndrome,’ which can be characterized by fiercely debilitating physical and psychological reactions. Moreover, antidepressants have a well-established history of causing violent side effects, including suicide and homicide. In fact, five of the top 10 most violence-inducing drugs have been found to be antidepressants.”
This doesn’t mean that our children need to be left to struggle through depression and isolation without any help, however. Experts recommend family, individual and other therapies, lifestyle changes including exercise and dietary changes, and spending more time outdoors with family and friends as healthy, side-effect-free ways to help kids cope.
What do cities have to do with loneliness? “The way we build and organize our cities can help or hinder social connection,” reads a Grattan Institute report.
Think of the awkward silence in a lift full of passengers who never communicate. Now think of a playground where parents often begin chatting. It’s not that the built environment “causes” interaction, but it can certainly either enable or constrain potential interaction.
Winston Churchill once observed that we shape the buildings and then the buildings shape us. I have written elsewhere about how architects and planners, albeit unwittingly, are complicit in producing an urban landscape that contributes to an unhealthy mental landscape.
Can we think of different ways to be in the city, of a different architecture that can “cure” loneliness?
Taking this question as a point of departure, I recently conducted a graduate design studio at the Melbourne School of Design. The students, using design as a research methodology, came up with potential architectural and urban responses to loneliness.
Have you ever waited at a rail station, killing time without engaging with the person next to you? Diana Ong retrofitted the Ascot Vale rail station with multiple “social engagement paraphernalia” to promote conversations and activity. Michelle Curnow proposed to convert train cars into “sensory experience cabins” that attract people to explore the in-built gallery spaces and listen to other people’s stories while commuting. Who said commuting had to be boring?
Having a pet is one of the most effective ways to tackle loneliness, but often people don’t have enough time to care for one. Zi Ye came up with “Puppy Society,” an app that connects a pet with multiple owners. The dogs are housed in a shared facility where the owners come to pet the dog.
Denise Chan studied the Melbourne CBD streets and found many of them are quite dead, despite being an icon of Melburnian liveliness. She reimagined the streets revitalized with community plant gardens, book nooks, and furniture to entice people to enter them and connect, say, during office lunch hours.
Are you one of those people who has a hard time eating alone? Fanhui Ding is, and she came up with a student-run restaurant for the University of Melbourne. Students get credit working on the aquaponic farms that supply the restaurant, which can be used to pay for a meal. People also get discounts for dining at the same table, encouraging students to interact over food. Given the many international students who suffer from loneliness, her concept used cooking, food, and farming as a therapeutic activity.
Beverley Wang looked at loneliness in the aging population. She came up with a project called “Nurture,” for which she designed a kindergarten co-housed with a nursing home. Designing spaces for storytelling, she brought the elderly into the kindergarten as informal learning aides, giving them a sense of purpose.
There is an utterly different kind of loneliness that accompanies the loss of a loved one. Malak Moussaoui, taking note of this, designed an installation that grows flowers on itself to be inserted into cemeteries. Instead of just buying some flowers on the way, Malak’s design is meant to bring people together, introduce flower gardening as a therapeutic measure and give people spaces to mourn together. They might then meet other people who share similar stories of loss and connect.
Other students tackled more familiar cases, such as designing more social interaction spaces in high-rise apartment buildings and redesigning supermarkets to make them places for people to visit on a Sunday morning. The student work can be viewed here.
Moving beyond merely analyzing the problems, the research output shows that an alternative, less lonely future is indeed possible. Without claiming to solve loneliness, design can be a important tool in response to it.
Humans are social animals. We naturally bond and pair as couples in partnerships and marriage. We live together as families and tribes, and we gather as communities. No doubt this is a manifestation of our spiritual selves which are never alone. This concept has many forms of dress. We call it our connection to God, or with our higher Self, or our oneness with Nature. In some religious traditions, we are all spiritual children of the Creator, or the Great Spirit. In others, as in Kabbalistic traditions, we originate from sparks of one light.
This tradition offers a beautiful illustration of how we are connected to one Source. It tells of a Godhead, an infinite, all permeating light with no beginning or end that filled the entire universe with no empty space. Out of a divine will, the Infinite, contracted Itself unto Itself to create a space where there was only fullness. Ten vessels (Sefirot) were then formed to hold this light. These vessels are said to be filled with the light of ten attributes of how God reveals himself to us, and to Himself. The attributes are:
These attributes may also be viewed as longings we hold as humans. One could argue that these attributes are more easily understood in the context of a relationship than in separateness.
This story beautifully continues that the vessels were not able to hold such emanating light, and shattered. The resulting sparks created souls-the worlds we both know and don’t know, as well as humanity. In a much-oversimplified way, I am explaining that we are created from these sparks of everything, of the Will of God. That we are not alone. And in both physical and spiritual ways we, as humans and as souls, seek to connect with each other. We don’t always do it elegantly, but we are always seeking connection because it is our very nature to be connected.
When we are unable to make this connection, as in consequences of departing from nature, we suffer. The inability to connect causes loneliness, which we are finding has deep implications to our spiritual, mental and physical health.
The following outlines the ways loneliness affects our health:
Predictors of Loneliness
Loneliness is proven to be harmful to our health, and identifying these predictors early can keep us healthier for longer. A recent study, Correlates of social and emotional loneliness in older people: evidence from an English community study, randomly recruited around 1200 adults, aged 65 and older, from a sampling frame and were given a questionnaire to identify the precursors to loneliness. The study resulted in 7.7% of adults feeling severely lonely and 38% of adults were moderately lonely. “Being male, being widowed, low well-being, low self-esteem, low-income comfort, low contact with family, low contact with friends, low activity, low perceived community integration, and receipt of community care were significant predictors of social loneliness.” Identifying how chronic loneliness begins is key in preventing it from affecting your health.
Loneliness and Chronic Illness
Loneliness and Quality of Life in Chronically Ill Rural Older Adults is a study that surveyed 60 chronically ill people face-to-face in determining how loneliness and chronic illness correlate. Using the UCLA loneliness scale and the CASP-12 quality of life scale, the survey examined loneliness and quality of life, and using access to medical records, chronic illness diagnoses, chronic illness control measures, and medication use data were collected. It was found that “participants with a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression had the highest mean loneliness scores, followed by those with lung disease and those with heart disease. Furthermore, participants with mood disorders, lung disease, or heart disease had significantly higher loneliness scores than those without these conditions. Loneliness was significantly related to total number of chronic illnesses.”
The study concluded nurses should assess patients with chronic illnesses for loneliness. The findings found loneliness to be a significant issue in rural, older adults, especially those who suffer with mood disorders, heart disease and lung disease.
Loneliness and Blood Pressure
70 million Americans struggle with high blood pressure each year, and the fact that loneliness affects blood pressure proves that socialization is truly beneficial for your health. Loneliness Predicts Increased Blood Pressure: Five-Year Cross-Lagged Analyses in Middle-Aged and Older Adults tested a multiracial group of 229 people for five years. The analyzed panel revealed that “loneliness at study onset predicted increases in [systolic blood pressure] 2, 3, and 4 years later. These increases were cumulative such that higher initial levels of loneliness were associated with greater increases in SBP over a 4-year period.” The study found that loneliness did not have a significant short-term effect on SBP, but loneliness was revealed to have a strong, obvious influence in larger increases of SBP over a four year period. A simple assessment of loneliness by questionnaire or interview could be sufficient to determine whether the patient should be referred to a clinical psychologist for therapy. Loneliness and high blood pressure have been known to increase mortality rates; however, simply decreasing loneliness in our day-to-day lives will keep us healthy and lengthen our life spans.
Loneliness and Fibromyalgia
Conducted last year, Loneliness, Daily Pain, and Perceptions of Interpersonal Events in Adults with Fibromyalgia examined loneliness and its effects on patients with fibromyalgia. This study observed whether individual differences in loneliness and/or daily exacerbations in loneliness relate to daily pain and frequency among people with fibromyalgia. 118 participants with fibromyalgia completed journals each evening for 21 days to assess the amount of positive and negative interpersonal events, event assessments, and pain. The reading concluded that “chronic and transitory loneliness were associated with more frequent reports of negative and less frequent reports of positive interpersonal daily events, higher daily stress ratings and lower daily enjoyment ratings, and higher daily pain levels.” Ultimately, the chronic and temporary episodes of loneliness are associated with more negative daily social relations and pain. Boosts in positive events were found to be like interventions for those with chronic pain.
Loneliness and Death
A newly published study, Loneliness and Mortality Among Older Adults in China, used data from a nationally representative sample of 14,072 adults aged 65 and older from the 2002, 2005, and 2008 waves of the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey to examine the relationships between loneliness and mortality. Ye Luo, author of the study, wrote, “About 28% of older Chinese adults reported feeling lonely, and lonely adults faced increased risks of dying over the subsequent years.
Loneliness both affects and is affected by social activities, solitary leisure activities, physical exercise, emotional health, self-rated health, and functional limitations over a 3-year period.” The study discovered that after taking social relationships into account, those with higher levels of loneliness tend to die earlier than those with lower levels. Behavioral and health outcomes at least moderately facilitate the effect of loneliness on mortality among older Chinese adults as we see attenuations of the direct effect of loneliness on death once behavioral and health variables were added.
In addition, a meta-analytic review was conducted to determine the extent to which social relationships influence risk for mortality. Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review found that across 148 studies, there was a “50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships…and the association was strongest for complex measures of social integration.” The analysis indicates that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are not only comparable, but exceed, well-established risk factors for mortality-such as smoking, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity and obesity. The fact that loneliness is just as detrimental to our health as smoking and other dangerous activities illustrates how vital connection and companionship is, and why we crave it on such a fundamental level.
Separateness Equals Dis-ease
Loneliness is just one way that our environment can affect our biology. Our thoughts and emotions influence our health in many ways at a deep and cellular level. As many traditions suggest, we all originate from and connect to a life-source. In naturopathic medicine , which views the mind and body as inseparable, this is called the “Vis”, or Vital Force, which is the innate healing energy that propels us toward homeostasis and health; towards life!
A separation from each other is a separation from our selves and from our very life source. Loneliness and connection are as important factors of health as good nutrition or any tangible risk factor for disease.
“Feeling lonely means you are not in a socially affine environment but rather in a relatively hostile environment,” Dr. John Cacioppo, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago and a co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post in an email.
“In socially affine environments, protection against viral infections is especially important, whereas in hostile environments, protection against bacteria is important,” Cacioppo wrote. “The pattern of gene expression in the lonely [environment] decreases protection against viral infections and instead may increase protection against bacterial infections.”
For the study, researchers analyzed the regulation of the leukocyte gene — which is involved in protecting the body against both bacteria and viruses — in 141 older adult humans over a five-year period, and in a separate group of rhesus macaque monkeys that displayed behavior indicative of social isolation.
The researchers concluded that inflammation and impaired antiviral responses contribute to the bad health effects of loneliness. The findings appear to support previous research suggesting that for older adults, feelings of social isolation mayincrease the risk of premature death by 14 percent.
“This is the first study I have seen that has actually gone into the details of showing loneliness leading to a decreased production of leukocytes (disease-fighting cells) and an increased production of immature monocytes,” Lorber said. “Leukocytes are what our body needs to fight infection. The fact that loneliness is leading to a decreased production of the leukocytes is really fascinating to me.”
But to be clear, the research doesn’t conclusively prove anything. The U.K.’s National Health Service pointed out in a blog post on Tuesday that “this study has not proved that socially isolated humans are more likely to become ill or die earlier. … Feelings of loneliness and social isolation can be complex emotions that may be influenced by many personal, health and life circumstances.”
Still, the NHS went on, “what is fairly apparent from this and previous research is that, whatever the biological mechanism(s) that may be behind it, loneliness and social isolation do seem to be associated in some way with disease and illness.”
The researchers said that they plan to continue examining how loneliness leads to poor health outcomes, and how these effects can be prevented in older adults.
Almost all of us have experienced loneliness at some point. It is the pain we have felt following a breakup, perhaps the loss of a loved one, or a move away from home. We are vulnerable to feeling lonely at any point in our lives.
Loneliness is commonly used to describe a negative emotional state experienced when there is a difference between the relationships one wishes to have and those one perceives one has.
The unpleasant feelings of loneliness are subjective; researchers have found loneliness is not about the amount of time one spends with other people or alone. It is related more to quality of relationships, rather than quantity. A lonely person feels that he or she is not understood by others, and may not think they hold meaningful relationships.
For some people, loneliness may be temporary and easily relieved (such as a close friend moving away, or a spouse returning home after a work trip). For others, loneliness cannot be easily resolved (such as the death of a loved one or the breakup of a marriage) and can persist when one does not have access to people to connect with.
From an evolutionary point of view, our reliance on social groups has ensured our survival as a species. Hence loneliness can be seen as a signal to connect with others. This makes it little different to hunger, thirst or physical pain, which signal the need to eat, drink or seek medical attention.
In affluent modern societies, however, turning off the alarm signals for loneliness has become more difficult than satisfying hunger, thirst or the need to see the doctor. For those who are not surrounded by people who care for them, loneliness can persist.
Researchers have found social isolation is a risk factor for disease and premature death. Findings from a recent review of multiple studies indicated that a lack of social connection poses a similar risk of early death to physical indicators such as obesity.
Some individuals may also be biologically vulnerable to feeling lonely. Evidence from twin studies found that loneliness may be partly heritable.
Multiple studies have focused on how loneliness can be a result of certain gene types combined with particular social or environmental factors (such as parental support).
Loneliness has largely been ignored as a condition of concern in mental health. Researchers have yet to fully understand the extent of how loneliness affects mental health. Most studies of loneliness and mental health have focused solely on how loneliness relates to depression.
Although loneliness and depression are partly related, they are different. Loneliness refers specifically to negative feelings about the social world, whereas depression refers to a more general set of negative feelings.
In a study that measured loneliness in older adults over a five-year period, loneliness predicted depression, but the reverse was not true.
Loneliness may be mistaken as a depressive symptom, or perhaps it is assumed that loneliness will go away once depressive symptoms are addressed. Generally, “lonely” people are encouraged to join a group or make a new friend, on the assumption that loneliness will then simply go away.
While creating opportunities to connect with others provides a platform for social interaction, relieving the social pain is not so straightforward. Lonely people can have misgivings about social situations and as a result show rejecting behaviours. These can be misconstrued as unfriendliness, and people around the lonely person respond accordingly. This is how loneliness can become a persistent cycle.
A study examined the effectiveness of different types of treatments aimed at addressing loneliness. The results indicated that treatments that focused on changing negative thinking about others were more effective than those that provided opportunities for social interaction.
Another promising way to tackle loneliness is to improve the quality of our relationships, specifically by building intimacy with those around us. Using a positive psychology approach that focuses on increasing positive emotions within relationships or increasing social behaviours may encourage deeper and more meaningful connections with others.
Indeed, even individuals who have been diagnosed with serious mental illness have reported improvements in their well-being and relationships after sharing positive emotions and doing more positive activities with others. However, research using a positive psychology approach to loneliness remains in its infancy.
We continue to underestimate the lethality of loneliness as a serious public health issue. Contemporary tools such as social media, while seeming to promote social connection, favour brief interactions with many acquaintances over the development of fewer but more meaningful relationships. In this climate, the challenge is to address loneliness and focus on building significant bonds with those around us.
The growing scientific evidence highlighting the negative consequences of loneliness for physical and mental health can no longer be ignored.